Friday, April 30, 2004


Friends: Paris is truly the film capital of the universe. It is a fitting place to spend a couple of days before cycling down to Cannes, 500 miles away, for its annual grand celebration of cinema. I will be joined by fellow cinephile and bike devotee Jesse, friend from the Telluride Film Festival. We could go crazy watching movies here, but we will try to limit ourselves. The Cannes Film Festival poster is already on display on lampposts and bus kiosks, as the festival is an event of national interest. All the films in Competition and Uncertain Regard will play in Paris the week after the festival ends. This year's poster is a tribute to that seminal cinematic moment when a gust of wind from a subway vent lifted up Marilyn Monroe's dress in "The Seven Year Itch."

Jesse couldn't wait to get his hand on the weekly digest listing and describing the several hundred movies that will be playing in the dozens of movie theatres about Paris the next week. When he was a student here two years ago, he lived for the publication. He'd spend a couple of hours every Friday when it came out dissecting it, plotting out his movie-going for the next seven days. Many theatres devote their week to a retrospective, some play movies all night, concluding with a breakfast for the bleary-eyed. Some theatres, even those with multiple screens, offer a monthly pass for around $20.

We noticed two movies we were both eager to see that had yet to open in the US--"Brown Bunny," the most notorious film at Cannes last year, and Jim Jarmusch's "Coffee and Cigarettes," playing on eight screens. When it opens in Chicago, it will play at just one theatre, the Music Box, and probably won't have a run of more than a couple of weeks. It will play here for months. Jarmusch is a virtual deity in France. Hardly a week passes that some theatre doesn't have a retrospective of his work. One is going on right now. A review of it referred to Jarmusch as "The Prince of Independent Cinema."

Before retreating to a movie theatre, we spent several hours exploring the city on our bikes. Jesse led the way, taking me to many of his favorite haunts, many of them movie theatres. We also dropped in on his old school to say hi to former teachers, got lunch at his favorite felafel stand and grabbed an ice cream cone from his favorite ice cream parlor. Jesse romped about with a youthful exuberance, thrilled to be reliving a noteworthy six-month chapter of his young life.

With our senses alive and percolating from the biking, we opted for a dose of Jarmusch's zany, off-beat humor. We knew we were in for a barrel of laughs with a cast of Bill Murray, Stephen Wright, Tom Waits and a host of others in this series of unconnected vignettes, mostly of a couple of characters sitting around in small diners smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee. Jarmusch spent several years filming these segments between other projects. Murray is rip-roaring hilarious playing himself as a waiter serving a couple of hip-hop artists. When they recognize him ,he begs them not to tell anyone he's working as a waiter. He walks around his small diner, drinking straight from the coffee pot he is carrying around. He continually offers some to the hip-hop artists, but they adamantly refuse, citing the perils of caffeine, and nicotine as well. Jesse and I were hurting from laughing so hard. Murray's segment is the show-stopper, coming towards the end of the series, but not a one disappoints or falls flat.

The bike is also celebrated and revered in France. As we biked the 21 miles from the airport to Montmarte last night on our fully loaded bikes to the apartment where we're crashing with a friend of Jesse's, a passing bicyclist greeted us with the exclamation "Bon Courage." As I guarded our bikes this morning while Jesse was in the American Express office changing money, the Bob Matter of Paris came over and invited us to the Paris version of Critical Mass. It is so popular it is held every Friday night, not just the last Friday of the month as in Chicago and most cities around the world. Even though its not called Critical Mass, the bicyclists proceed to take over the streets, including the Champs Elysees, and have a jolly good time like Critical Massers the world over.

Unlike most Critical Masses, the Parisian version doesn't interfere with the rush-hour commute, not starting until ten p.m. He said last Friday they had over 750 cyclists and enthusiastically encouraged us to join . He even gave me a map showing its starting point just a block from Notre Dame in the plaza in front of the Hotel de Ville, the City Hall of Paris. This 60-year old gent went on and on like some disciple preaching the gospel of the bike, extolling its many virtues and what a joy and how worthwhile it is to ride.

He was ecstatic to learn that Jesse and I plan to spend the next three months biking around France and some of its adjoining countries, saying that is something he has always wanted to do. He lamented that France is "late" in promoting the bicycle compared to Holland and Denmark and Germany, but is trying to catch up. But one thing France isn't "late" on is staging the world's premier bicycle race--The Tour de France.

He gushed over its magnitude and majesty, how much he loved it and how it takes over the country for three weeks every July. He was nearly epileptic with joy, actually pounding me on the back, when I told him that I was going to follow The Tour on my bicycle. That too is something he has dreamed of doing himself, though at his age he knows he'll never do. He was proud to have his picture taken last year with two of Lance's teammates on the Champs Elysees at the conclusion of the race.

As much as he loves The Race, he has never left the Parisian environs to witness it, not even to the mountains, where the greatest dramatics of The Race unfold and the fans are the most enthusiastic, though that too is something he'd desperately like to do. And why oh why hasn't he. I am constantly meeting others with all sorts of unfilled ambitions. Listening to such people in my early adulthood inspired me on the path I have taken.

At least this fine fellow wasn't lamenting. He was bubbling with so much energy, it was shocking that he couldn't find the will to ignite the fuse to set himself on his way. His last words were he'd be rooting for Lance to win number six, just as will I.

One more day in Paris and then on to the city of Tours to visit former Chicago bike messenger and Critical Masser Florence.

Later, George